TRENTON — Democrats won an upset gubernatorial victory in Kentucky on Tuesday, took full control of the Virginia Statehouse for the first time in more than 20 years and ran an unusually competitive race for governor in Mississippi.
But an unlikely state — deep blue New Jersey — bucked those positive trends for the party.
Under the leadership of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, an unabashed liberal who canvassed the state and appeared in $2 million worth of ads during the closing days of the campaign promoting his agenda, New Jersey Democrats lost at least three legislative seats despite massively outspending Republicans.
For a party that has seen its numbers and influence in Trenton shrink in recent years, the gains were the first in a decade and the first time Republicans have picked up more than one seat in an Assembly election since they won a massive anti-tax landslide in 1991. It was also the first time they gained a seat in the state Senate since 2007.
“We made the ‘Murphy Midterms’ a rallying cry,” GOP State Chairman Doug Steinhardt said in a phone interview Wednesday, referring to the label he and other Republicans attached to the election. “I think people perked up and have started to listen.”
Republicans managed to blunt the effect of anti-Trump sentiment in the state’s suburban districts near New York City and Philadelphia, criticizing his inflammatory rhetoric, if not his policies. Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-Burlington) in a January 2019 Facebook video said he didn’t blame U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib for calling President Donald Trump a “motherfucker” because she was “merely following the path of President Trump, who’s a master of the name game, who constantly puts an insulting adjective before everybody’s first name.”
At the same time, the GOP focused on Murphy’s push to increase taxes in a notorious high tax state. And Democrats in New Jersey may have over-extended themselves over the last four years, winning the most legislative districts they had since the 1970s, so little low-hanging fruit was left.
Tuesday’s results were a surprise in a state that has been at the epicenter of Trump‘s unpopularity, and which played a crucial role in helping Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in last year’s blue wave election, when they were able to flip four of five GOP-held seats in the state’s delegation.
While Democrats will continue to maintain large majorities in both houses of the New Jersey Legislature come January, the Republican gains — a pick-up of one state Senate seat in a special election and at least two seats in the Assembly — gave a much-needed morale boost to the New Jersey GOP, which seen once reliable Republican suburban voters turn away from the party since President Donald Trump took office.
The big question now is whether Tuesday’s results point to potential losses for the state’s Democratic congressional delegation in 2020 and Murphy’s reelection fight in 2021, or whether Democrats have so dominated recent elections in the Garden State that the only seats left to flip are in increasingly Republican districts.
“Bless the Republicans who won. My hat is off to them,” Murphy said in a phone interview Wednesday. “But they are playing on an increasingly smaller field.”
Republicans across the state consistently campaigned against Murphy’s push to raise taxes in one of the most heavily-taxed states in the nation.
During his first two years in office, Murphy has unsuccessfully pushed for a “millionaire‘s tax” but signed a bill that allows local governments to charge fees to landowners in order to upgrade water utilities based on how much runoff they generate, a new law Republicans campaigned against as a “rain tax.”
Republicans also seized on a comment Murphy made during an appearance at Rowan University last month in which he said, "If you’re a one-issue voter, and tax rate is your issue ... we’re probably not your state."
Though they will remain firmly in the minority in the Legislature, Tuesday’s results have given Republicans hope about winning back some of the congressional seats they lost last year and unseating Murphy in 2021.
“I view [Tuesday] as a jumping off point. It’s a foundation and a framework for moving forward. I view it as a little appetizer,” Steinhardt, the state GOP chairman, said. “Now Republicans have to get hungry and jump headfirst into 2020 and really want to make a difference.”
In the 2015 and 2017 state legislative elections, Democrats grew their majorities by flipping several Republican seats and solidifying control in several districts in which the GOP used to compete.
Democrats did not have much trouble holding those seats on Tuesday, but they failed to win any of the Republican-held Assembly seats in three suburban districts that significantly overlapped with congressional districts they flipped last year. All had been considered safely Republican as recently as four years ago.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said the Democratic gains in 2015 and 2017 left the party with little room to grow.
“The only thing that’s different is why didn’t Democrats do better in the suburban areas,” Murray said in an interview. “I think that’s because they were overextended in New Jersey to begin with. Whereas in Virginia, they had more room to grow.
“If we were not put in this Trump mindset that Democrats are going to continue to pick up in places where they’ve never picked up before, we would have been expecting the result we got last night,” he said.
In an off-year election with the Assembly at the top of the ticket in all but one district, the electorate tends to skew older and more conservative. And Murphy’s approval ratings, while not terrible, are middling. According to the most recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University 45 percent of New Jersey residents approve of Murphy’s job performance compared to 37 percent who disapprove.
Murphy said the fact that Democrats competed in three districts that were considered safely Republican until recently shows the GOP is increasingly endangered despite their gains. And, he noted, the Democrats who lost seats did not embrace his agenda.
“The fact that they’re celebrating [in Legislative Districts] 21 and 25 and 8, just to pick those three, that they were able to hold those? Think about that,” Murphy said in an interview. “We weren’t even playing in those districts four years ago.”
Democratic campaign literature that attempted to tarnish Republicans by tying them to Trump and even former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who left office two years ago, did not win them any legislative elections.
But Republicans in suburban swing districts who have been openly critical of Trump did fend off challenges from the right. That included Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) who has criticized Trump’s tone and has called for civility and who along with his running mate beat back a challenge from two “independent conservatives.” In addition, Peters, the assemblyman from Burlington County who made a video criticizing Trump’s rhetoric, won in South Jersey despite the presence of a “MAGA conservative” independent on the ballot.
Trump did help Republicans in at least one swing district in rural South Jersey, where for years state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, a conservative Democrat, had managed to win in the Republican-leaning 1st District and bring two Assembly Democrats along with him.
Van Drew was elected to Congress last year and without him on the ballot, Republican state Senate candidate Mike Testa and Republican Assembly running mates Antwan McClellan and Erik Simonsen defeated Van Drew’s interim replacement, state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May) and Assemblymen Bruce Land (D-Cumberland) and Matt Milam (D-Cumberland). That was despite the Democrats branding themselves on campaign advertisements as “The Van Drew Team.”
Testa and his running mates were unabashedly pro-Trump, targeting the Murphy administration’s “sancutary state” policies. Trump even recorded a robocall to aid the campaign that went out on Monday. The district’s Democratic incumbents were highly critical of Murphy, who did not campaign with them, and expressed support for a local Republican sheriff’s challenge to a Murphy administration policy limiting local jails’ cooperation with ICE.
Steinhardt said Trump “energized our base” in the district. On the other side, Sue Altman, executive director of the left-leaning New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said her party’s tilt to the right in the district demoralized the Democratic base. Van Drew, for instance, had just been in the news the previous week for being one of only two Democrats in the House to vote against the impeachment inquiry.
“You can’t take Democratic voters for granted. You can’t run to the right and expect your Democratic base to be there,” Altman said. “This is a crisis of message. They’re trying to paint the town with money, they have no ground game and no love from the base.”
Republicans still have a chance at picking up two other seats in South Jersey’s 2nd District, which as of Wednesday was too close to call, with Democrats claiming a narrow lead.